When you’ve lost so much – how do you manage to be grateful?

My daddy was an ironic mash-up of 70’s flower child and Sicilian Catholic. In the 70’s and 80’s he had an annoying habit of preaching the gospel of “PMA.” For those of you who might have been subjected to this particular brand of torture in your own lives, you will recognize “PMA” as standing for “Positive Mental Attitude.” For every negative comment that Daddy caught us uttering, he would literally make us repeat the opposing positive statement out loud ten – TEN – times. You recognize the formula. It takes ten – TEN- positive thoughts/actions/comments to erase the energy created by just one negative thought/action/comment.

How does this look when applied? Quick example – I might say something to my little brother like “I hate you.” (Of course, I didn’t mean this. It’s just something that kids say.) If Daddy overheard, I would then I have had to tell my little brother “I love you” ten – TEN – times in a row (which is what I meant from the start). Can you begin to picture the torture that I endured as a child?

Well, it turns out that the old man, God rest his soul, was right. Science is now catching up with what hippies and religious folk have known all along – positive people and those who count their blessings are better off mentally and physically than those who don’t. If you don’t believe me, google. You will find tons of articles and studies on this concept.

While there is little controversy that being positive and/or counting blessings is good for us. The big question is how do you practice “PMA” or an “attitude of gratitude”  when you don’t feel grateful– especially if you don’t have someone following you around to call a “time out” when you let a negative comment slip or grumble about your circumstances? How do you even entertain a positive vibe when your world has gone dark?

Mustering an “attitude of gratitude” during a season of loss can be difficult if not downright impossible. Most people would grant those dealing with loss a pass on giving thanks. That’s great, except God doesn’t give us a pass. “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” 1 Peter 4:12. Being forewarned to expect trials and tribulations really doesn’t make it any easier to recognize the beauty around us when our world is dark? How do we pass through the fiery trial with a PMA?

Baby steps.

At this point, you might be thinking something along the lines of – “you don’t understand how bad my situation is. I can’t manage even ‘baby steps.’” Or – “I’m going through the worse thing imaginable. There is nothing positive in my life. There is nothing to be grateful for.”

I hear you. I feel you, but I’m not buying. To put it bluntly – you’d be preaching to the choir. If I can manage baby steps, you can too.

What do “baby steps” look like when we are at the depth of our deepest despair? Start by recognizing something – anything – that you can appreciate. It can be small. This will differ for each of us. Some examples: the sight of a spring flower or fall leaves; an icicle glistening in the winter sun; the sound of child’s belly laugh; an orange ladybug; the smell of a hot cup of coffee or fresh cut grass; the calming presence of family or friends; or any one of a myriad of other things.

If nothing else – revisit a favorite memory. Happy memories are truly a blessing – like catching up with an old friend. Our bodies sometimes have a difficult time differentiating between what is happening in our minds (memories, imagination, etc.) and what is actually happening. Reliving those happy memories can give you a boost – even if just for a moment. As I’m writing this, I actually chuckled remembering how much it would annoy my own daughters when I practiced my daddy’s “PMA” technique on them!

The list of things about which to give thanks is endless, but it won’t make itself. The key is to be intentional – approaching rabid – in your effort to incorporate gratitude into your daily practice. Inspirational author and speaker, Ann Voskamp made keeping a gratitude journal popular in her book One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are. It’s not a bad idea, guys. Voskamp is a master at taking glee in the slightest of things – bubbles in a soapy sink or handfuls of grain slipping through her fingers. If Voskamp can find delight in a sink full of dirty dishes, we can do this!

At one point, I had taken Voskamp’s journal idea a step further and instituted my own program that I affectionately named “Thank and Plank.” My goal was to begin each day writing down three things for which I was grateful and then work through a daily plank (yes, the exercise) challenge. Exercise is another great baby step. It’s good for the body but exercise also helps to clear the mind. “Thank and Plank” is a great technique, especially when I’ve veered off a path of intentional gratitude and am searching for a way back. Kinda like jumper cables, “Thank and Plank” gets me moving again when my gratitude battery is running low.

Just as Peter warned us that we would face fiery trials, the Apostle Paul counseled the Thessalonians and reminds us to be thankful in all circumstances. “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18. If it is God’s will that we give thanks in all circumstances, then there must be something – no matter how small – about which to be thankful in all circumstances.

It is easy to give thanks when times are good. It is effortless to be faithful when God is smoothing our paths and answering our prayers. Good times and smooth paths tend to yield a youthful, carefree faith. Fiery trials produce a fierce faith when we place our hope in the One who conquered death and darkness.

If the road is bumpy and the way seems dark, how do we get back on track? How do we avoid the inevitable pitfalls? Baby steps. Commit to one, simple strategy designed to foster a grateful heart – even if your heart isn’t in it during this season.

What are your tips for remaining grateful during a bumpy season? What’s worked in the past? Leave a comment. Your comment might be the spark that lights a path for another.

One thought on “When you’ve lost so much – how do you manage to be grateful?

  • My mind is my own worst enemy and my best friend. I value my time alone, but go between needing to be alone and being with loved ones…family and friends. When alone, is when I’m most likely to “miss” the gratitude and joy of the small things, but it’s also when I can be very happy and thankful without interruption or distraction.
    Hmmmm…just thinking about what to type brings a smile!


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